'If there was a serious prospect of shifting Labour towards the left, no serious Marxist could stand aside from this.' Peter Taaffe should live up to his words, says Peter Manson
Peter Taaffe: delusional
Now that the dust has settled after the May 5 elections, how do the component parts of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition view their performance? Tusc stood 174 candidates in the English local elections and contested two regions for the Welsh assembly, and its votes ranged from disappointing to dismal.
I have already commented briefly on Nick Wrack’s ‘Some initial observations on the Tusc election results’, which was posted on the Tusc website on May 8. Comrade Wrack, a member of the coalition’s steering committee, while noting the “generally small votes and low percentages” that are only “to be expected for a party that has no real national or local profile”, concluded it was nevertheless “a good initial foray”.
“Given the difficulties that the socialist left has had working together to present candidates in elections over the last decade,” comrade Wrack remarked, “it was a success to be able to put forward 174 candidates, representing the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party and independent socialists ...”
I will resist the temptation to comment ironically for a second time on his observation that, “If Tusc had been in a position to stand candidates in every ward in England, its vote may have been small in percentage terms at this stage, but the aggregate vote would have been significant ... An average vote of two percent would mean half a million votes.”
Therefore, comrade Wrack concluded, “The Tusc initiative has the potential to develop into something very significant. We need to discuss how we can build on this start and map out a strategy for the future.”
Well, Tusc has now called a “conference” for July 16 in order to plan for the 2012 local elections in England and Wales. But attendance is restricted to candidates, agents and “key campaign supporters” - and perhaps “those thinking of standing” in May 2012. In other words, the Tusc steering committee is not exactly planning for huge support from outside the ranks of the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the comparatively small number of “independent socialists” like comrade Wrack, together with the usual token appearance from the SWP.
What about the SWP? What was its attitude to the May 5 results? It was rather more downbeat than Nick: “The elections saw people looking to the strongest mainstream alternative to the government across the UK. That meant that there were disappointments for many left-of-Labour candidates. For instance, George Galloway didn’t get elected in Glasgow - and socialist councillors in England, such as Michael Lavalette, lost their seats .... Many Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition ... votes were poor.”
Comrade Lavalette himself reports in the same issue: “I was inundated with emails, texts and Facebook messages of thanks and support after the result. That made me feel very proud to have been an SWP councillor.” Except you weren’t “an SWP councillor”, Michael. Not in formal terms in any case. You were officially registered as “Independent Socialist” and stood on May 5 as “Independent Socialist Against the Cuts”.
Nevertheless, the SWP’s conclusion was a reasonable one. It frankly admitted in its internal Party Notes: “The left-of-Labour vote was generally small and often very small ... it was very disappointing to lose councillors Michael Lavalette and Ray Holmes ... Having them in place was a boost to the fightback. But we have always known that the key issue is the level of struggle.”
By contrast to the SWP, SPEW’s extensive post-election coverage was super-positive, stressing Tusc’s total of “over 25,000 votes” gained by candidates standing in 50 councils. It may not look like it right now, but Tusc is actually laying the ground for a new party that will eventually replace Labour! “In eight wards contested by Tusc,” we are informed, “the Labour Party was so moribund that it either did not stand a candidate or stood in less than the total number of seats up for election.”
The Socialist published a dozen highly optimistic local reports, all claiming that Tusc did rather well in the circumstances. Typical was Paul Delaney’s from Coventry, where Tusc’s candidates were all SPEW members standing as Socialist Alternative. His piece is headlined: “Coventry: support for Socialist Party still strong in St Michael’s”. “Still strong” - despite the fact that the share of the vote for former councillor Rob Windsor was down to half that of the Labour candidate. In fact, “Our vote in some parts of the ward was as high as 70%, with people seeing us as the only principled fighters and campaigners ...”
However, comrade Delaney still felt the need to excuse SPEW’s “strong” showing: “Our task was made harder because of the national situation, but also complicating local factors. For instance Mia Ali, the Tory candidate from 2010, had made a seamless transition to Labour, which undoubtedly increased the vote for Jim O’Boyle, the Labour councillor opposing Rob, as some of her support base would have gone with her.”
However convincing (or not) readers of The Socialist find such explanations, they can take comfort in the fact that Socialist Alternative “slightly increased our share of the vote across the city, to obtain 3.5% from 3,081 votes” in all 18 council wards.
The paper’s main article on the election hammers home the theme that Labour’s decline is continuing and the situation is ripe for the emergence of a mass working class replacement: “... the rejection of Labour for a seemingly more combative alternative [the Scottish National Party] is an illustration of workers’ distrust of Labour, not just in Scotland, but across Britain. Similarly, in Brighton, where the Green Party has its stronghold, it became the largest party on the council.” Even where Labour made gains, “Workers who voted Labour did so without real enthusiasm.”
The article notes: “It is ironic that today Labour is chasing after the Liberal Democrats, just as the Liberal Democrats face electoral annihilation.” Fair enough, but the anonymous writer concludes from this: “It confirms again that Labour today is not a mass party of the working class, but is one more capitalist party.” This same point is repeated by SPEW general secretary Peter Taaffe the following week: “It is incredible that, as the situation worsens, New Labour shifts even further towards the right, offering even to rescue the Liberal Democrats in an alternative coalition to that of the present Tory-led coalition!”
Then and now
What is really “incredible” is that SPEW claims to see confirmation that Labour is now “one more capitalist party” in the Labour leadership’s willingness to enter into coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Labour leaders have always been prepared to form pacts or even governing coalitions with not just the Liberals, but the Conservatives too. There have been numerous ‘understandings’ with the Liberals, dating right back to Labour’s foundation, and three instances of minority Labour governments supported by the Liberals (1924, 1929, 1977). And, of course, twice during the last century Labour entered into wartime coalitions or ‘national governments’ with both bourgeois parties.
But for comrade Taaffe everything has changed: “Gone are the days when Labour councillors, although they did not always stand on the left, nevertheless tended to be volunteers dedicating themselves to defending their communities and class. As Labour has been transformed from a workers’ party at bottom into another capitalist party, so workers have dropped out of Labour Party membership. In their place have come careerists and place-seekers, devoid of any sympathy or susceptibility to the worsening plight of ordinary working class people.”
It is all so simple, isn’t it? While once there were dedicated volunteers, now there are only “careerists and place-seekers”. It is true that the latter category increased in size and dominance under Tony Blair, but it is plain silly to suggest either that their existence was previously negligible or that the overwhelming mass of Labour councillors were once committed to “defending their communities and class”.
Under Blair not only was there a huge influx of middle class careerists, but the party’s structures became hollowed out and its democratic space even more squeezed. But its basic character remained unchanged. Labour was, and is, funded, sponsored and supported by the trade unions. Despite the lack of “real enthusiasm”, workers still look to Labour to defend them against the worst of the Con-Dem attacks.
SPEW’s 2011 congress document on ‘British perspectives’ admits: “There has been a certain influx into New Labour’s ranks, but nowhere near the scale of the past, when the Labour Party did act as a left pole of attraction for tens of thousands of workers who were looking for a real struggle against capitalism and the Tories.
“A layer of young people, some of them sincere in their intentions, may have joined. It was reported that 500 were mobilised in one day of canvassing during the Oldham by-election. But most new Labour Party members are likely to be passive new recruits, joined by the ‘salariat’ of paid councillors.”
A classic case of facing both ways. There has been a “certain influx” of young people who are “sincere in their intentions” into Labour’s ranks and as many as 500 may have joined in the canvassing in a single day, but why should that make us change our dogmatic minds? Anyone can see that among those switching their support or joining Labour are not only those who viewed themselves as progressive and feel angered and betrayed by the Lib Dems, but thousands of workers who are being hit by the cuts and are coming to the conclusion that they must act to stop them.
SPEW may still dub the party “New Labour”, but I cannot imagine Blair turning up to address a mass anti-cuts demonstration in Hyde Park, as Ed Miliband did on March 26. Union activists and a layer of members are exerting pressure on the bureaucrats to match their anti-cuts words with action and this is being translated into a pull to the left on Labour. Of course, it is important not to overstate its strength, but it is real enough.
SPEW’s problem is its subjectiveness. In its previous existence as Militant it was witch-hunted out of the Labour Party by a section of purgers led by former Labour left Neil Kinnock. As Andrew Price recalled in Socialism Today last year, “In 1983, in the wake of a massive election defeat, the party elected Kinnock as leader. He and his followers were ruthlessly determined to rid the Labour Party of Marxists, as I found to my cost when I was expelled from Cardiff South and Penarth Constituency Labour Party ... 25 years ago. Ultimately, Kinnock was successful in driving out the Marxists - at the price of destroying the Labour Party as it had existed until then.”
As if Labour had never before engaged in purges against its left, not least the communists. But for SPEW it was not even Tony Blair and New Labour that marked a quantitative break from the past: it was Neil Kinnock with his overwhelming union support! And the reason SPEW knows this? Because Kinnock drove out “the Marxists”!
In reality, there are still Marxists in the Labour Party, although they reside amongst a left that is as weak as it has ever been - for the moment. Just as we expect the party itself to continue to move leftwards - and the leadership to continue to pose more left - reflecting its union constituency and the mass opposition to cuts, so we expect the Labour left to grow in size and influence. In truth, it could hardly do anything else, bearing in mind its current position.
Deep inside, SPEW knows all this. Let me quote from Militant’s real history: a reply to Ted Grant and Rob Sewell, written by comrade Taaffe in 1996: “It can never be theoretically discounted - nor have we ever said this on any occasion - that an ex-workers’ party which has degenerated into a bourgeois formation could, under the impact of mighty economic and political events, begin to shift once more towards the left and transform itself into a vehicle for workers. It is not theoretically excluded that the same thing could happen to the Labour Party in Britain, with Blairism being rejected, a big shift towards the left taking place and a new arena of struggle opening up for socialists and Marxists.”
So what is it about “an ex-workers’ party which has degenerated into a bourgeois formation” that makes it different from a party that was a “bourgeois formation” from the beginning? Presumably comrade Taaffe does not believe it is possible to transform the Tories or Lib Dems into “a vehicle for workers”. So why is it theoretically possible for Labour to become one? The answer can only be that the shift under Kinnock, John Smith and Blair had never been so great or so complete as SPEW has claimed. The union link is the key. This, and a mass working class electoral base, is what produces the left pressure and that is what defines Labour as a bourgeois workers’ party to this day.
In the same polemic against his former comrades, Taaffe writes: “If there was a serious prospect of shifting Labour towards the left, so that it became once more an instrument of struggle for working people, then no serious Marxist would or could stand aside from this.”
Excellent! All that now remains is for SPEW to recognise that there is indeed a “serious prospect” of that happening. Instead of wasting all the energy and commitment of so many dedicated socialists in futile attempts to build an alternative Labour Party through dead-end ventures like Tusc, SPEW should look to the real thing.
The working class needs its mass Marxist party. But a Labour Party that was an “instrument of struggle for working people” could play a vital role in bringing together partisans of our class in the fight for workers’ power.